BlackBird Books, 2021
‘Ungasabi,’ the thing says in an androgynous voice. Zena freezes. A sudden teardrop splatters onto the shallow little trench behind the toes of her right foot. Her knees wobble and threaten to give way beneath her, but terror prevents even this—locking her in heavy-breathing rigor mortis. The alien-looking thing is a sinewy dwarf with a huge silver metallic dome for a head. In facial features a child, but also unmistakeably ancient. It is standing just inside her door, a goblin with an oversized head.
Long, winding arms are covered with what looks like shiny, interlocking shells of various shades of blue. The expansive forehead? A crusty plate of bronze. Purple veins pulse and throb on the steaming, almost-haloed head—energy, heat, something, definitely—alive right around the dome.
Zena backs away, trembling. She inches into the corner of her small room farthest from the zinc door with peeling green paint, and stands there. Shaking. Unable to take her eyes from the thing just inside her door, but incapable of facing it squarely. Panic creases her forehead in zigzag furrows, folding and pooling sweat that drips down between her eyes.
A perspiring swamp in her armpits soaks through the thin fabric of her nightie, sending little spears of trembling cold down her arms. She must be dreaming or hallucinating.
This thing that is in her room … Visible. Audible. It cannot possibly be real. Zena’s feet are unsteady on the bed, which she doesn’t remember climbing onto. It becomes clearer to her with each long, fleeting moment that she is indeed fully awake. How is this so? How is this not a dream? She wishes that she could evanesce into the cold wall against which her spine, wet with sweat, is quivering.
To be outside her room right then, to be far away from it—she would give anything for this. The odd creature remains perfectly still, looking steadily at her.
‘You are mad. You are seeing things,’ Zena whispers to herself. And perhaps to someone else. Someone, anyone; anything within hearing, within reason …
‘You are mad.’
She whispers it to herself as loudly and as silently as her heart is pleading it. Barely audible. Parsing the words out in separate pieces, so that they might become real. Softly, but pealing through the room like a church bell in the silent dawn—the way a pearl might shine in some unknown deep. Rather that. Rather mad. Rather anything but that this thing should be real. Real and here, in her room.
This thing that has just told her not to be scared. This thing in her room. This thing is alien. Surely this thing is alien. And of course everyone knows that aliens don’t really exist. No? Or if they do, well, not in real life. In movies and books, aliens are alive. In imaginary, fictional worlds. I mean, they are even welcome, there. Welcome diversions. Entertainment. Zena had watched some series about aliens once or twice, at her uncle’s place, as a child. She had become obsessed with an old movie in her early teens—ET. She had found the DVD while visiting said uncle in the city, on one of the few occasions she’d been out of Sandlwana. Sandlwana, the small rural village nesting below Izintaba zoKhahlamba, the mountain range in whose majestic shadow she had grown up. Will the alien thing in her room allow her to live to see Sandlwana again?
In movies. That’s where things like the strange little creature belong. Not in her room. Not in her life. Humdrum and dreary as it had been, Zena’s daily grind up to this point flashes before her. It seems peaceful now. Desirable even. Enviable, in the terror of the present moment. The commonplace, predictable days she had grown to dread seem now a gift of inestimable value. No man, she must be dreaming.
‘You are dreaming dammit,’ Zena whispers.
Just one problem though. She clearly isn’t. And the strange, frightening thing is there still. Unmoving. Perfectly calm. Standing just inside her door.
And then it speaks again, with a voice that is old but clear. Remarkably, the language it is using continues to be Zena’s own.
‘Kuthiwe ngikutshele ukuthi lokhu esizele ukukucela, awuphoqelekile ukuthi ukwenze.’
How is it that she is being addressed in her mother tongue? Oh for heaven’s sake! What is the meaning of this hallucination that refuses to end? Why can she not wake up and dash this nightmare onto the cold rocks of reality?
Zena suddenly becomes conscious of the staleness of her breath. She clamps her mouth shut to make sure there is something, heck, anything that is still within her control. Her lips close firmly, obeying. But the relief of succeeding in doing this turns suddenly to consternation—because surely it means that she is in fact awake? And that therefore the thing her eyes are seeing, and her ears hearing, is undeniably real? Wave after wave of fear crashes in crosscurrents, punching through her chest.
‘But I’m not a coward, I’ll never be a coward,’ her heart whispers stubbornly within her.
And her heart tells no lies. Ordinarily, this is indeed so. She is a rather fearless young woman. But that too begins to morph into another rabbit hole … Why is she thinking rationally? How can she be remembering things about herself with such surety, in this bizarre, unreal moment? This means that she is clearly and beyond all doubt awake, does it not? Zena begins to be more and more afraid of the fact that she is not in fact even more afraid than she feels. Given the circumstances, she ought to be in an incoherent panic, surely? It concerns her to realise, with each passing moment, that she isn’t. Or is she?
Zena suddenly feels very annoyed. Quite angry, in fact. She clenches her jaws and purses her lips and tries to order her thoughts. Here is this imposition on her morning routine that seems to have no regard for her … for what is important? Resolving to no longer dither about what is real and what is not, she sets her mind firmly on doing what the moment requires of her practically. That is what is important. In short, she needs to shower. She needs to get dressed. She needs to get to work. She can’t be late for work again.
Zena counted it as the grace of God, the mere fact that she had a job. Almost everyone else in her family was unemployed. Trapped in rural Sandlwana, where hope and despair combined to make the days longer than seemed normal. She’d started as a cleaner at the company where she worked, and had finally scored a desk job when it was confirmed that she could type. She had taught herself how to type a few months after arriving in Jozi. She had done this on a laptop her brother Zakhe had come back with, returning from one of the nightly forays that unemployed young men in the city chose or were chosen by. And so, despite having started as a cleaner she was soon working with the data capturers on the third floor; a combination of what her late grandma used to call, ‘God and your own two hands.’ Gogo.
Who had taught Zena almost everything she knew about life.
Zena and her twin brother Zakhe would never have left Sandlwana if uGog’ Khanyile had not died. Although she was well into her 80s when she passed on, the old woman’s death had still caught them by surprise. She had been so agile still. So full of wit and vitality that she seemed indestructible. Gogo. Gogo would have been terribly disappointed to see someone she had raised becoming a serial latecomer at work.
‘But there is a strange thing in my room today! What am I supposed to do?’
Zena heard her words bounce loudly off the walls, and then come back to ring in and sting her ears. She hadn’t meant to shout. The alien thing, however, seemed quite unperturbed.
‘Angiyona into. Ngithathe njengesivakashi ongasaziyo,’ it said.
Zena half-cursed then clamped her mouth shut. She tried to shut down the tumult in her mind. She reached resolutely for her towel, feeling relieved when the creature shifted smartly out of her way as she moved towards the door.
‘Sizimisele ukukubonga, uma nje uzosisiza. Kuthiwe ngikunike lokhu,’ the alien thing said. The visitor, as it apparently preferred to be call ed.
In spite of herself, Zena paused just outside the doorway of her small room and turned to look back at the scaly, wiry, held-out hand. There, in the pit of the shimmering, light-blue palm rested something the size of a large raisin. A little stone, gleaming in the sunlight that was beginning to peek through the clouds overhead.
‘Ilokhu enikubiza idayimane,’ the leprechaun with a big head said.
‘Why am I losing my mind like this,’ Zena thought impatiently?
She glanced around agitatedly, then back at the strange creature with the sparkling stone in its extended hand. Fear struck her then, again, like a crunching blow from behind—hunching her shoulders in involuntary, recoiling fright. She let out a shriek and jumped, and swivelled away, and marched toward the outside toilet and shower area a few steps from her room.
The water was, as always, cold. She showered quickly, trying not to think. Emerged from the shower wrapped in her towel and walked the few paces back to her room, and pressed down the handle—pushing the door open with trepidation. She was shaking with the after-burn of ice-cold water and the bizarre events of the morning.
Inside the room, the strange creature was nowhere to be seen. But there, on the floor, was the ‘diamond.’ Zena took the tiny diaphanous stone and put it in her handbag, and tried not to think why she was doing so. She got dressed quickly and stepped out into the morning breeze, inhaling deeply as she always did in the crisp morning air.
- Perfect Hlongwane was born to Nonceba Priscilla Johnson of Soweto and Lindela Cleopas Hlongwane of Bergville in Kwa-Zulu, Natal. He received an excellent formative education in Eswatini. He has been a journalist, author, English lecturer, soccer magazine editor and copy editor. He lives and works in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.
The unnamed protagonist of Perfect Hlongwane’s second novel, Sanity Prevail, is admitted to the psychiatric ward of a government hospital.
There, he meets an assortment of characters, his fellow patients, and narrates their hilarious, horrific and ultimately tragic stories as relayed to him by themselves. His conflicted feelings about being in the treatment facility, and keen curiosity with regard to the admission stories of his fellow patients, serve as the unfolding plot for his stay in the psychiatric ward.
The protagonist agonises about what it means, to be adjudged mentally unwell, by a society whose very foundations seem to him unjust and unhealthy to the point of being bizarre.
A story that seeks to explore what sets individual stories apart, how they converge and collide and ultimately, the dilemma of being alive in the world today, such as it is. A riveting tale about the struggle of a mental patient to wrestle hope from the deepest pit of despair.